Waves on the Bering Sea
The Tiglax, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife research vessel, is contracted for the duration of our work on Amchitka Island. However, we have no weather delays, and our long days allow us to finish our field work about a day ahead of schedule. This affords the boat’s crew the opportunity for a short break before they pick up the next scientific team. After loading the ATVs and other gear onto the boat from the dock, the Tiglax heads back to Adak Island.
Me, Danika Marshall, and the Aleutian Weather
At first, all is well. I had applied a scopolamine patch to prevent motion sickness early in the day. It was doing its job admirably, as it had on the voyage out to the island days before. As the boat comes out of Constantine Harbor into a growing storm, those with more sense have already retreated to their bunks, but I go up to the wheelhouse to chat with soon-to-be-captain John Faris (Captain Billy Pepper will retire at the end of 2016) and enjoy the ocean views. At first, the waves are about 6 feet (2 meters) high, and they are all coming at the boat from roughly the same direction. So far, so good. As the Tiglax approaches Amchitka Pass, the swells grow, and they begin to pitch the boat in random directions – front to back, side to side, and everything in between. It is not a huge storm, but it’s big enough for me.
Motion is greatest at the top of the boat. With no warning, the boat lurches, and I am hit in the stomach with a surge of nausea. I stagger down two flights of steep nautical stairs, grip the handrails in the narrow hallways, and make my way back to my bunk in Stateroom #4. After lying down, I feel better pretty quickly. The scopolamine is valiantly doing its job holding the nausea at bay, but it doesn’t give me any good sense. As soon as I feel well, I head to the galley for dinner. It’s not a smart plan.
Adak Island after the storm
As the night wears on, the waves grow, and we all run a real risk of being pitched out of our bunks onto the floor. That never happens, but I roll from side to side like a bottle in my bunk for most of the night. It is quite a challenge climbing down from the upper bunk and finding my way along the hall to the bathroom, all the while being slammed into walls from various directions. At this point, I am questioning my desire to ever climb aboard a boat again, but by morning, my seasickness is gone. We approach the port of Adak under clearing skies and calmer waters, though I doubt any of us got much sleep. While most of the team stay in their beds, I enjoy breakfast and coffee with Craig Goodknight, who was the only passenger to experience no seasickness at all during the voyage.
Mt. Moffett comes out of the clouds on Adak Island
The team spends the night at the Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse in Adak. Fish and Wildlife employees do a lot of research in remote locations, and some wildlife refuges maintain bunkhouses for them. Earlier in the summer, we had all stayed at a bunkhouse at Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge in northern Colorado while we took our required ATV training course. But the house on Adak is a little different. Because it is so remote, guests bring food with them, but they don’t tend to bring it back out. The kitchen cupboards are filled with all sorts of canned and boxed food, and there seems to be a historical collection of noodles. There is no way of knowing how long various items have been there, so I suspect that the foodstuffs accumulate faster than they disappear.
Trust me, rat traps are a good thing
One thing is for certain … the pasta collection gets no visitors who are rats. Fish and Wildlife takes rat control very seriously on the Aleutian Islands. Historically, seafaring vessels brought invasive rats to nearly all of the islands, and where there are rats, there are fewer nesting birds and other desirable, native species. Fish and Wildlife has worked hard over the years to eradicate rats from as many islands as possible, restoring valuable native ecosystems in the process. While I chuckle at the rather obvious rat trap arranged between the refrigerators at the bunkhouse, I appreciate that it’s there.
Eagles perched on Adak’s beach rocks
During our short stay at the bunkhouse, Danika, Craig, and I take the opportunity to walk the length of one of Adak’s beautiful beaches. There we see plenty of life, including a pair of bald eagles who are not particularly wary of us. Patches of blue sky appear overhead from time to time, revealing the slopes of Mt. Moffett and even the top of the more distant Great Sitkin, hovering like a disembodied head over a layer of misty clouds.
We board the flight to Anchorage late in the morning but find that the flight from Anchorage to Denver has been delayed.
The peak of Great Sitkin
We have all been up for a long time when we finally make our connection to Grand Junction. It will take some days for me to feel normal again.
On my first day back in the office, a co-worker who was a member of one of the monitoring teams in 2011 asked me if I was having trouble “reintegrating.”
This was a perfect description. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized it. I’d been vaguely troubled, distracted, and mildly ill since I’d returned. Some of my discomfort was residual dizziness from the scopolamine patches, and some was general haziness from jet lag, which I seem to be prone to, especially when traveling from west to east. But some of it was actually reintegrating. It wasn’t easy to transition from such a strange, remote wilderness back into my familiar, everyday life. Evidently, it happens to a lot of people who have made this journey. The Aleutian Islands are a beautiful, haunting place. I still feel their pull, like a mysterious gravity, a quiet tide.
A marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) resting on Hulten’s flora of Alaska. During my adventures, I spent late nights in the stateroom aboard the Tiglax identifying the plants I’d seen on Amchitka Island. This image is a fitting ending to the story of my adventures there.